How We Fall Apart
As Americans we take pride in the fact that for nearly 224 years we have governed ourselves through that singular instrument, the Constitution of the United States. Such is the strength of our civic institutions that in all our history we have never suffered a military coup, not even through the tumult of Civil War. While we should take pride in this accomplishment, we should also beware of the false sense of security that accompanies it. We tell ourselves that because it’s never happened here, it can’t happen here. That’s a perilous way of thinking.
Our seeming immunity to the ignominy of the military coup is not accidental. Two members of my immediate family are graduates of the United States Naval Academy (USNA), so I am at least peripherally aware of the efforts our military academies undertake to imbue young officers with a deep sense of respect for: a) the limits to, and proper use of, military power, b) the appropriate code of conduct for a military officer, c) our civic institutions, and d) above all, civil authority over our military. Indeed, at USNA all midshipmen are exposed to a rigorous curriculum designed specifically to inculcate these values.
Underlying all the explicit instruction is a solid foundation of longstanding tradition. Should your travels ever take you to Annapolis, I heartily encourage you to visit the Naval Academy grounds, and especially Bancroft Hall. Bancroft is a peculiar combination of dormitory and museum. The rotunda and adjoining Memorial Hall are quite beautiful. The Memorial Hall is, by intent, both solemn and awe inspiring. In it you will find inscribed the names of all Naval Academy graduates (men, and now, women) who have been killed in action. In various alcoves around the hall you find the stories of some of these fine officers described in intimate (and often harrowing) detail. The psychological purpose of the hall is obvious. In extremis, it’s both helpful and encouraging for young officers to know that those who have gone before them somehow mustered the fortitude to conduct themselves with courage and honor, even to the point of death. Honor and tradition are bulwarks against the soul crushing fear that can accompany combat.
Just as our military institutions uphold and glorify the memory of heroic conduct, they also remember and revile those who have betrayed those values. “Hanoi Jane” Fonda was a controversial figure during my childhood; her anti-Vietnam War activities verged on treason in the opinion of many members of the military. Somewhat to my surprise, I learned that during my son’s plebe year, the standard salute at lights out remained, “Good night, Jane Fonda!” To which the proper reply is a resounding, “Good night, you communist [expletive]!” The lesson here is simple: To a much greater extent than in the civilian world, our military neither forgives nor forgets.
With all these safeguards of instruction and tradition, it seems reasonable to assume nothing could go wrong. I submit this is a wrong assumption, and the first clue to just how wrong may be found in the oath of office sworn by all military officers on commissioning:
“I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.” (emphasis added)
The observant reader will note that (unlike the oath sworn by enlisted men and women) officers swear no oath to follow orders, lawful or otherwise. Nor is there any swearing of allegiance to the Commander in Chief. The oath is to the Constitution. On this inauguration day, ask yourself: What might happen were we to, for instance, elect a president disdainful of the Constitution, a populist demagogue who traduced the Rule of Law at every turn, who abrogated any notion of the separation of powers, and who trampled the Bill of Rights at every opportunity? Given their training, traditions, and oath, how might our military officers react to such a person? What could possibly happen?
Actually, we need not ask rhetorically; we can look to the example of history. In the decades prior to the disintegration of the Roman Republic two main political factions held sway; these were the optimates and the poplares. The optimates were what we would now refer to as conservatives; the poplares were, as the name suggests, populists. In 88 BC the optimates and poplares were led by Lucius Cornelius Sulla and Gaius Marius, respectively. Both men were distinguished military generals, both served as consuls of Rome. (Although Marius was certainly a member of the one percent, he had amassed his political power by establishing the novel policy of allowing non-landowners to serve in the Roman legions. When it came to raw populism, Marius makes Obama look like a piker.)
An inevitable consequence of the vicious political maneuvering between the optimates and poplares was a gradual breakdown of the rule of law and separation of powers. Political favoritism became the currency of power. (Sound familiar?) Frightened and appalled by the populist usurpations of Marius via his control of the plebeian council, which culminated in Sulla’s removal from command of the eastern legions, Sulla snapped. In 87 BC Sulla entered Rome in force at the head of six legions, an action which was, to abuse an overused Washington trope, unprecedented.
In his conflicts with Marius and the poplares Sulla invaded Rome not once, but twice. (In the interim Marius invaded Rome and purged optimates with unmitigated savagery.) On the second occasion Sulla had himself declared dictator (something that hadn’t happened since the darkest days of the Punic Wars some 150 years earlier). Sulla rooted out the poplares with great (and somewhat bloody) vigor and instituted a series of constitutional reforms designed to prevent further populist agitation. In 81 BC (following the death by suicide of Marius the Younger upon defeat by Sulla’s forces) Sulla did the honorable thing and retired. But the damage was done, precedent established, the Republic fatally wounded. Sulla, the champion of tradition and conservative values, had set the terrible example. It was only a matter of time before Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon once and for all.
Just remember, friend, it can happen here.